Bourne launches search for the real Billy Elliots

Choreographer sets up talent competition to inspire youngsters
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The Independent Culture

Matthew Bourne, one of Britain's best-known choreographers, is to launch a nationwide talent competition aimed at encouraging young people who want to follow in his footsteps. This weekend he warned that savage cuts expected to hit to arts budgets will have a crippling effect on future talent. He said: "My worry is that young choreographers aren't going to be supported."

Renowned for his sell-out Christmas dance productions, including Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, Bourne plans to launch the New Adventures Choreography Awards later this year.

He established the competition with friends to mark his 50th birthday this year, hoping to encourage the next generation of British choreographers. "They'll pitch their ideas and we'll supply dancers and sets, and put them in touch with people who can give them a start," he said. "It's for people who haven't had that break yet."

Judges will be looking for young choreographers not only with talent but also those with the drive to make it in a very competitive industry. "You can usually tell by their personality: if they are passionate then they are the ones that you want. We are keeping it as flexible as we can," he said.

The five-time Olivier award-winner is keen to encourage dancing in communities not traditionally associated with the pastime. He is working on a new production of William Golding's Lord of the Flies in Glasgow, featuring boys from local housing estates. "We've really targeted those difficult areas, and the kids that aren't at dance school," he said. "It might seem small – it is just a week of performances – but it can change lives. It changes their perspective and ambitions. I saw that with some of the boys in Oliver!. It gives them that boost and the confidence they need."

His work has not been as profitable as it might have been, and commercial pressures will inevitably put an end to the innovative shows that made his name: the all-male Swan Lake and The Car Man, and a reworking of Bizet's Carmen set in a 1960s American garage.

"We might be forced to do reruns for the next few years, as they are cheaper. You obviously want to do a combination of new work and old favourites," he said. As if to illustrate the point, Bourne's Christmas production of Cinderella was first performed in the West End in London – albeit in a slightly different form – in 1997. "You have to have big titles because they sell tickets," he added. "And we have to look to bring over the big audiences to dance, as it is one of the smallest audiences." This approach seems to be working: ticket sales are up 20 per cent on last year's Swan Lake.

Set in London during the Second World War, the show depicts Cinderella falling in love with a handsome RAF pilot from whom she is separated during the Blitz. The show's score by Prokofiev has also been updated.

Bourne has little time for the elitism and snobbery of some dance companies. "If you want to survive, you might want to think a bit more about pleasing the audience," he said. "It's bums on seats. If we didn't deliver that we wouldn't be able to put on shows."

He insists the secret to his success – the assumption that "the audience knows nothing" – is anything but patronising. He said: "You can't expect them to have prior knowledge. I'm a popular choreographer – I like pleasing people."

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella plays the Theatre Royal Plymouth (15 – 20 November), Lowry Salford (23 – 27 November), Sadler’s Wells (30 November 2010 – 23 January 2011) prior to a national tour –